Silence Is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar review – a refugee’s story | Fiction

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The unnamed narrator of Silence Is a Sense is a Syrian refugee who has been so traumatised by conflict and her perilous journey across Europe that she no longer speaks. Living in a nameless English city, she spends her days watching the residents of the estate she has come to call home through her window, and writing columns for a news magazine from a “refugee perspective” under the pseudonym “the Voiceless”. Her editor keeps pushing her for more memories, but she is unable to provide them: “We try to construct narratives – what happened before the blood came? … to stitch it all together into a coherent pattern.”

Layla AlAmmar is a writer who understands trauma, how it fragments the memory and turns people into startled animals. The narrator recognises these behaviours in those around her: “the guy in the shop holding himself a little too rigidly … the young mother whose eyes are constantly scanning the street”. Trauma rejects conventional narratives, a fact that Home Office interviewers still fail to understand. In order to be granted asylum, migrants have to be prepared to unfurl their horrors for inspection; like our narrator, many refugees find themselves unable to stitch it into a coherent pattern.

At times, the reader shares the editor’s feelings of frustration: just tell us what happened, you want to say. This is cleverly deployed; are we being unreasonable in demanding an organised narrative? AlAmmar offers trickles of information that are just enough to hint at the terrors of war (“The smell of meat and burning is strong in the air, but nothing is cooking”) woven in with shrewd observations about Britain and immigration. Some people respond to the narrator with kindness, including the bookshop owner who lets her take books for free. Others are racist and aggressive. She feels the pressure to be a “good” immigrant. “Everyone here wants a story,” she says, “a nice little packet of memories.”

AlAmmar is pursuing a PhD on “the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory”. If you know about literary trauma theory, you’ll know that it examines how psychological trauma challenges the limits of language. This and other theoretical threads (collective experience, disassociation and fragmentation) can be traced through the novel, meaning that at times it feels like a work constructed to respond to the theory of trauma, rather than trauma itself. To readers, this choice may manifest in a certain failure of characterisation. The picture of this woman, like her memories, is cloudy.

Despite this, the use of several cliches and some dialogue that doesn’t ring true, I admire this book. It is an intelligent, insightful novel that asks vital questions about how we can begin to express trauma, and in what form. It faces up to its linguistic challenges. It doesn’t quite meet them, but perhaps no words, however they are deployed, truly can. That, after all, is the nature of trauma.

Silence Is a Sense is published by Borough (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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